Hiding under a desk might be a natural response to an active shooter in your building, but it may actually increase your chances of being shot.
So say experts who study mass shootings and train people to survive them.
"Basically, what we found was lockdown training, it really does not mitigate casualties, what happens is it actually increases the casualty rates in a room," said Joe Hendry, director of risk assessment for the ALICE Training Institute, a company that trains police officers and others to respond to active shooter situations.
The phenomenon of mass shooting has grown and changed over the years. So has the thinking on how best to survive one. Experts say that there is no single response that works in every situation because each one is different. Their best advice is to keep your options open, what’s known as the multi-option response.
Those options include evacuating, barricading and attacking — or run, hide, fight as they’re often termed.
"The first one is run to get away from the danger," said Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, whose department trains schools, businesses, churches, and others to react to attacks.
Bouchard said anyone with the chance to get out of a building or area with an active shooter should take it immediately and let police confront the shooter. But he acknowledges that’s not always possible, especially if a person is several floors up and the shooter is between them and the exit.
In that case, Bouchard said, hiding can help, though it should be thought out in advance. People in a workplace or a school or a house of worship need to know where the exits are, what walls and doors are made of, and plan accordingly.
"Don’t go into an all-glass conference room," Bouchard said.
Barricading yourself into a room means more than simply locking the door. It can mean moving furniture in front of the door and covering any windows so the attacker can’t see people inside.
ATTACK AS LAST RESORT
When running or barricading in a safe place aren’t options, experts say that as a last resort, attacking the gunman can save lives.
"It depends on spatial proximity," said Detroit Police Sgt. Rick McLatcher, who has taught active shooter training to more than 3,500 people in the past four years. "If somebody is near the shooter, you know, within 20 feet, you really almost lose the option to barricade your space unless you happen to be in a separate room and you can close the door."
In that case, it may be best to attack the shooter, using whatever happens to be handy: a pen, a desk chair, a fire extinguisher, etc.
McLatcher said at that range, research shows it’s easier for a gunman to shoot someone fleeing in the back than it is to shoot someone who is charging at them.
"If I’m the bad guy, and I’m operating with no resistance, my stress level is lower, my accuracy is higher," he said. "But if somebody is going to charge me, my stress level goes up."
McLatcher said police reviewed security camera video of the 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, where 49 were shot dead.
"They found that not a single person offered any physical resistance to that shooter at all, and that’s a problem," he said. "Because if you’re using a firearm, right, you have downtime for reloads, weapon malfunctions, what have you. The commonly held view is that had anybody offered any physical resistance, they would have shut that guy down. It wouldn’t have stopped all the killing, but it would have prevented a lot of it."
DON’T BE FROZEN
McLatcher said that the biggest obstacles to be overcome by people caught in an active shooter situation are psychological. Being frozen by fear is a recipe for disaster and undergoing training can help prepare people for when they might be confronted by the situation.
McLatcher said that he recommends people to take as much training as they can get.
"Take a concealed pistol license class, even if you don’t like guns," he said. "Take a CPR class. Take a disaster response class from the Red Cross. It’s a stress inoculator."
Research into the best way to respond to active shooters is still evolving, but some trends are becoming clear, said Cheryl Lero Jonson, a criminal justice professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati.
She was part of a research project in 2017 that used simulations to gauge the effectiveness of different responses from people under attack. The project had an active shooter using air-powered guns shooting plastic pellets.
The shooter was sent into different simulated environments including a school, an office or an open space.
People inside were trained to respond in different ways. First, they tried the traditional lockdown method of simply trying to hide from the shooter. In a second simulation, they were taught to use the multiple-option responses, including fleeing, barricading and attacking the gunman, which proved the better approach.
"There was a significant decrease in the number of people who were shot," Jonson said.
The study was peer-reviewed and published in the Journal of School Violence in December, but Jonson acknowledges that it had limitations. The study used adults exclusively, where most school situations would be full of children.
About half of those adults were trained law enforcement officers. Researchers used statistical techniques to control for that, but it’s still not quite the same as a random sampling of people.
"But if you look at what some of the recommendations are coming out from Homeland Security of options to consider; and then if you look at anecdotal evidence, and then you take this study, we’re starting to develop the picture, that these more passive approaches, like hiding under a desk or a table, don’t seem to be as effective as these more, multi-option approaches."
FIRST OFFICER IS TO SEEK GUNMAN
ALICE training stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate. It was developed by a private company and is used by many police agencies including the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office. Texas State University developed a program for training police known as ALERRT, which stands for Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training, which is used by Detroit Police and others.
Bouchard said the training for police has evolved as well. In the past, the first officer to respond to a shooting scene might wait for backup help or for a SWAT team to arrive. Now officers are trained to immediately seek out the gunman.
"We’ve changed our training dramatically, to insert and neutralize, as soon as you get there," Bouchard said. "Go in, find, listen for the shots, go to the gunfire, and neutralize that person. That’s a completely different mindset."
Jonson said each program has nuances, but many of the techniques overlap. Police not only must respond to the incidents when they arise, but they also train the public on how to react.
Jonson said training the public can be a challenge, especially training children. The trainers don’t want to traumatize children, but they do want them to learn some things that could help them if the worst were to happen.
"I always go back to fire," she said. "Fire is inherently scary, but absolutely we train kids," she said. "We do it by showing the fire trucks. By using coloring books, you know, there’s a way that you can train people without scaring them."